Professor A. G. Dickens

Thursday 09 August 2001 00:00 BST

Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, historian: born Hull, Yorkshire 6 July 1910; Fellow and Tutor, Keble College, Oxford 1933-49; University Lecturer in Sixteenth Century English History, Oxford University 1939-49; G.F. Grant Professor of History, Hull University 1949-62, Deputy Principal and Dean of Faculty of Arts 1950-53, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1959-62; Professor of History, King's College, London 1962-67; FBA 1966; Director, Institute of Historical Research and Professor of History, London University 1967-77 (Emeritus); married 1936 Molly Bygott (died 1978; two sons); died London 31 July 2001.

A. G. Dickens was one of the dwindling number of distinguished historians maturing at Oxford in the early 1930s, who, happily surviving the Second World War, endured into the 21st century.

A Magdalen First in 1932, Geoffrey Dickens was a Fellow of Keble by 1933. In the Royal Artillery from 1939 to 1945 he spent his last few military months as press officer in occupied Lübeck, an experience recreated in his first book, Lübeck Diary, a wry account of coping with awkward Germans and even more difficult Poles. (An interest begun in Germany then led to his initiative in the creation of a London Institute of German History, rewarded by a Commanders Cross of the OM of the German Democratic Republic.)

Back into academic life Dickens was resonant to the urge of ex- service people like himself to get on quickly with their careers, sensing, as most academics did, that these were likely to be the most dedicated students they would ever have. Moving to Hull, native territory, he published in the 1950s a string of documents and articles, culminating in Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York 1509-1558 (1959), a collection with a common theme – the survival of a Wycliffite dissent making for a popular Protestantism ready to push beyond the formal changes set forth in the 1530s by King-in-parliament.

After a short "life" of Thomas Cromwell (1959), Dickens was commissioned to write a comprehensive account of these developments. The English Reformation (1964) turned out to be his magnum opus expounding a tale extending to 1559 taking the abrupt termination of Mary I's counter-reformation to clinch Protestantism. Commended immediately for its "exemplary justice and impartiality of view," it was as late as 1993 praised by John Kenyon, never over-kind, for "its great style, relentless scholarship and dispassionate religious commitment". (Dickens was an Anglican.) Certainly the book was a landmark in Tudor historiography, regarded even by a growing bank of hostile commentators as "the best expression" of its particular approach. Their problem was that the approach was wrong.

Slow in the 1960s and 1970s, the reaction has quickened remorselessly, assailing a view of the imminent demise of medieval English Catholicism. Out of this (mis)conception that this was really Dickens's sole line, there emerged a heterogeneous "revisionism" – its protagonists include orthodox Catholics, moderate Anglicans and an agnostic (sharpest of the lot) – glimpsing short and long Reformations, quick, quick, slow Reformations. Polemical from the start, it was found to fragment into post-revisionism of the sort already active in the historiography of the English Revolution of the mid-17th century.

Dickens himself took little part in all this, only lightly revising his book and adding to the final (1989) edition a few short chapters taking the argument into "the Elizabethan Church Settlement". In the 1990s heart attacks and debilitating illness brought his work gradually to a close. Meanwhile, a tireless advocate for the social value of history, he had accumulated public and professional offices galore, implemented with quiet efficiency. From a Chair at King's College, London, he took on in 1967 the Directorship of the Institute of Historical Research, supported there in his vast correspondence and overflowing "diary" by an admired and admiring secretary, Mavis Hawker.

Travel always appealed to Dickens and as foreign secretary of the British Academy he seized the opportunity for visits to Eastern Europe forging useful links with historians there. Visiting professorships took him to the USA and the Antipodes and from all over the world he collected almost en passant a wealth of academic honours. About it all there was something rather charming, almost naïve.

Retirement did not come easy to him. His wife of 40 years, Molly, died in 1976 and his two sons, Peter and Paul, had naturally flown the coop. But he continued to write, teach, talk, breathe history. The Historical Association – "the voice of history" to the generality – made him appropriately the first recipient of its Medlicott Medal for services to the discipline (1985). As President for many years of the association's central London branch – its largest – he brought history alive with quirky humour to hundreds of sixth-formers and college students. It was the last of his activities to go.

Geoff Dickens's final publication, reflecting his command of the continental Reformation, was Erasmus the Reformer (1994), written in collaboration. Cultivated in his tastes – a discerning collector of modern British art – and for all his distinctions somewhat unpretentious, he must have fancied to have seen in Erasmus, that deplorer of extremes, something of himself. The reissue in 2000 of the book at the initiative of his co-author, Whitney Jones, now seems aptly valedictory.

Ivan Roots

As a Fellow of Keble College, Oxford in the 1930s, Geoff Dickens mingled with several late Victorians and understood their world, writes Patrick Collinson. Although he was to achieve fame as a historian of the Reformation, the Renaissance was his first love, and in particular the historiography of Guicciardini.

But on a day in the late 1930s Dickens walked up to York Minster from the station and began to work on the until then scarcely penetrated ecclesiastical records of the northern province, and especially on the religious history of his native Yorkshire. The importance of this work became known beyond Yorkshire when he published Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York.

His general survey, The English Reformation, was hailed at the time of publication as a nearly definitive account of its subject, and giving due weight to "from below" factors, religious and social. Dicken's conviction that Protestantism was an idea whose time had come, and that the medieval Catholicism was in degenerative condition, was later challenged by a number of revisionists, who insisted that a more formal Reformation in England was a slow and contested process.

After 1964 he left local English reformation studies to younger and oncoming generations and wrote a number of successful text books on the European Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and an important study, his Birkbeck Lectures, The German Nation and Martin Luther (1974). In this book he acknowledged the contribution of his most brilliant pupil, the late Bob Scribner of Cambridge and Harvard. Was Dickens a social historian of the Reformation according to the lights of the so-called "new social history"? Scribner used to say that he was like Moses, who never entered the Promised Land, but viewed it from Mount Pisgah.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in